Social Change in the Digital Age 2022-2023
Prof. Matteo Bittanti
B.A. in Corporate Communication and Public Relations
Social Change in the Digital Age investigates some of the most complex challenges that society is facing today, both at a macro and micro level. It does so by examining a series of key issues framing the contemporary moment: social and political disorder, disinformation, and climate catastrophe. The underlying principle is that these dynamics are not an anomaly, but rather constitute the standard operation procedure within the system of capitalism. To illustrate and articulate this apparent paradox, we will discuss several contexts and case studies, including contemporary corporate culture, the climate change debacle, the role of technology in facilitating the spread of disinformation, and the general sense of political impasse, focusing on the narratives and conceptual frameworks that we use to make sense of an increasingly undecipherable world.
By looking at the root causes of our persistent failure to engage with these issues constructively, this course offers a multilayered account of the challenges we face today, while stressing the need to acknowledge the current predicament. Social Change in the Digital Age encourages students to imagine the world in ten, twenty, fifty years from now. Will climate change lead to the collapse of society as we know it? Will improvements in renewable energy make fossil fuels a thing of the past? Will technology become a tool of pervasive surveillance and oppression or a liberating force that could improve our daily life? What kind of political frameworks will prevail in the near future? Will existing trends intensify our best tendencies toward freedom and equality, or our worst, increasing exploitation and mutual indifference?
This course introduces students to a diverse set of readings about technology’s impact on the social, cultural, natural, and political spheres, encouraging them to apply the conceptual frameworks and empirical findings discussed in the course to make sense of current events, environments, and contexts.
Specifically, in line with the key objectives of the Program and with the specific objectives of this thematic area the course will help students to:
- Familiarize themselves with the most up-to-date literature in several disciplines relating to technological, social, environmental, and cultural change.
- Understand how to critically examine a text, comparing contrasting views, ideas, and concepts, and formulating new hypotheses based on the available information.
- Develop an understanding of the role of technology and media in shaping communication, culture, society, and politics by critically examining different theoretical approaches and several case studies.
- Craft an ability to critically appreciate and discuss the cultural and social role that technologies play in relation to class, sex, and gender.
- Consider challenges and opportunities, possible outcomes and plausible endgames from different angles, connecting them to larger socio-cultural frameworks.
- Develop an approach not limited to fully understanding a problem, but also open to the possibility of alternatives to a contingent situation that seems “inevitable” and "inescapable".
Consistently with the learning objectives of the program, Social Change in the Digital Age will consist of lectures, seminars, and in-class discussions on specific topics concerning the relationship between technology, society, culture, and politics in a time of extreme transformation. Course materials - including assigned readings - and the test will be identical for all enrolled students. Attendance is optional, but recommended. Resources such as in-class presentations, video summaries, extra content and more are shared via the University's moodle platform, also known as IULM Community. The course – including required texts, presentations, and resources – is taught entirely in English.
In order to successfully complete the course, students will be required to take a mandatory final exam, consisting of a computer test featuring 30 closed-ended questions (correct answer: 1 point; wrong answer/no answer: 0 points). The pass grade is 18. Students will be evaluated on their understanding of the key concepts and ideas discussed throughout the semester. Thus, a close reading of the required texts is necessary. The exam also focuses on content presented in the instructor’s presentations, case studies, and resources such as summaries, diagrams, flowcharts, concept maps, and required videos. Sample questions will be provided in advance via the IULM Community page to help students prepare for the test. Please note that a complementary oral test is not provided.
Students can also submit an optional multimedia project consisting of a short video essay on a specific theme selected by the instructor worth 0 to 3 points that will be added to the written test score (if equal to or above 18/30). For more information about the optional multimedia project, including requirements, format, duration, and submission deadline please see the "Optional Project" section below.
Robert W. Gehl, Sean T Lawson
Social Engineering. How Crowdmasters, Phreaks, Hackers, and Trolls Created a New Form of Manipulative Communication
MIT Press, 2022 Please note that this book is available in open format on the MIT website
The New Climate War. The Fight to Take Back Our Planet
Faber and Faber, 2021
Disorder. Hard Times in the 21st Century
Oxford University Press, 2021
Recommended books (these are not part of the exam)
Arjun Appadurai, Neta Alexander, Failure, Wiley, New York 2019.
James Bridle, Ways of Being: Animals, Plants, Machines: The Search for a Planetary Intelligence, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2022.
James Bridle, New Dark Age. Technology and the End of the Future, Verso, London 2017.
Richard Barbrook, Imaginary Futures: From Thinking Machines to the Global Village, Pluto Press, London 2015.
Franco “bifo” Berardi, Futurability: The Age of Impotence and the Horizon of Possibility, Verso, London 2017.
Jens Beckert, Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 2016.
Aaron Bastani, Fully Automated Luxury Communism, Verso, London 2018.
Heather Davis, Plastic Matter, Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina 2022.
Mike Davis, Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, Vintage, New York 1999.
Roman Felli, The Great Adaptation. Climate, Capitalism, and Catastrophe, Verso, London 2021.
Peter Frase, Four Futures: Life After Capitalism, Verso, London 2016.
Mark Fisher, Capitalism Realism. Is There No Alternative?, Zero Books, London 2009.
Byung-Chul Han, Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power, Verso, London 2017.
Jonathan Crary, Scorched Earth. Beyond the Digital Age to a Post-Capitalist World, Verso, London, 2022.
Geoff Dembicki, The Petroleum Papers Inside the Far-Right Conspiracy to Cover Up Climate Change, Greystone Books, Vancouver, British Columbia, 2022
Martin Gurri, The Revolt of The Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, Stripe Press, San Francisco 2014 (2nd edition: 2018).
Malcolm Harris, Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, Little, Brown and Company, 2017.
Srecko Horvat, After the Apocalypse, Polity Press, New York 2021.
Matthew Huber, Climate Change as Class War. Building Socialism on a Warming Planet, Verso, London, 2022.
Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, Simon & Schuster, New York 2015.
Wes Jackson, Robert Jensen, An Inconvenient Apocalypse. Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity, University of Notre Dame Press, Bend, Indiana 2022
Catherine Liu, Virtue Hoarders: The Case against the Professional Managerial Class, Minnesota University Press, Minneapolis 2020.
Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital. The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming, Verso, London 2016.
Andreas Malm, The Progress of This Storm. Nature and Society in a Warming World, Verso, London 2020.
Andreas Malms, How to Blow Up a Pipeline, Verso, London 2021.
Geoff Mann, Joel Wainwright, Climate Leviathan A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future, Verso, London 2020.
Toby Miller, Greenwashing Culture, Routledge, London 2017.
Toby Miller, Greenwashing Sport, Routledge, London 2017.
Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects. Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota 2013.
Sam Moore, Alex Roberts, The Rise of Ecofascism. Climate Change and the Far Right, Polity Books, New York, 2022.
Naomi Oreskes, Erik Conway, Merchants of Doubt. How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, Bloomsbury, 2011.
Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner, You Are Here. A Field Guide for Navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories, and Our Polluted Media Landscape, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts 2021.
Thomas Piketty, Capital and Ideology, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 2020.
Pablo Servigne, Raphaël Stevens, How Everything Can Collapse: A Manual for Our Times, Polity, Cambridge 2020.
Pablo Servigne, Raphaël Stevens, Gauthier Chapelle, Another End of the World is Possible: Living the Collapse (and Not Merely Surviving It), Polity, Cambridge 2021.
Heather Rogers, Green Gone Wrong. Dispatches from the Front Lines of Eco-Capitalism, Verson, London 2013.
Daniel Sherrell, Warmth. Coming of Age at the End of the World, Penguin, London 2021.
Nick Srnicek, Platform Capitalism, Polity, New York 2016.
McKenzie Wark, Capitalism is Dead. Is This Something Worse?, Verso, London 2019.
Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, Public Affairs, New York 2019.
The Puppet Master (limited series)
is an excellent podcast limited series produced by the BBC about Vladimir Surkov produced by Gabriel Gatehouse. Highly recommended.
Energy Geopolitics & the Remaking of the Modern World with Helen Thompson (Hidden Forces podcast, Jun 11 2022) (standalone episode)
Disorder with Helen Thompson (Talking Politics podcast, Feb 24 2022) (standalone episode)
OIl with Helen Thompson (Bungacast podcast, March 29 2022) (standalone episode)
The New Climate War
How They Made Us Doubt Everything hosted by Peter Pomerantasev, BBC Sounds (limited series)
How some of the world's most powerful interests made us doubt the connection between smoking and cancer, and then how the same tactics were used to make us doubt climate change.
Drilled hosted by Amy Westervelt (ongoing)
Drilled is a true-crime podcast about climate change. The show was launched in 2017 and is hosted by investigative journalist Amy Westervelt and since then won several awards.
Optional project: Greenwashing
Students are encouraged to produce a short digital video focusing on the key themes discussed during the semester. This year's theme is greenwashing, i.e. the dissemination of misleading information that conceals abuse of the environment in order to present a positive public image.
Specifically, such video must address the following questions:
If greenwashing has become the de facto standard of contemporary corporate communication, can you craft a promotional video for a product or a service that - while obviously damaging for the environment , the consumers, and/or the labor force involved in its production - is nonetheless presented as "sustainable", "eco-friendly", "environmentally friendly", and "ethical"? Would you be able to persuade your audience that your product/service is "good for the environment"?
The video's maximum length is 300 seconds (5 minutes); students can use different formats, e.g. infomercial, commercial, news coverage, video essay, "user generated content", unboxing, influencer video etc.; students can use any kind of image and sound in their video as long as they properly credit all sources used both in the video and accompanying document.
This is not a group exercise: all projects are solo. The policy is: One student/one project.
Only one project can be submitted, i.e., students cannot submit multiple versions of the same project.
Each video must be accompanied by a written description (PDF preferred) which must include the following elements:
- Project title
- Student's full name, ID number, date
- Course title, Instructor's full name
- Project description (500 words total, not including sources/references - see below)
- Sources/references (assets used for the video and bibliography)
The video and the accompanying document must be submitted no later than December 23 2022 by 23:59. Projects submitted after that date/time will not be considered.
Accepted formats: .mp4 only; HD (1920 x 1080) or 4k (3840 × 2160)
Max size: 4 GB
Project must be sent to the instructor ([email protected]) using file sharing platforms such as WeTransfer, Google Drive and the likes.
Deadline: December 23 2022 no later than 23.59
Submitted videos will be judged by the instructor on the basis of their aesthetic and conceptual qualities.
Specifically, the following criteria will be considered: concept, structure, presentation, originality, creativity, impact.
concept - is the idea sound? Is the student able to fully understand the meaning and function of greenwashing? Does the video show an understanding of key issues pertaining to the notion of disinformation, greenwashing, corporate communication, and climate change? Is the student engaging with the course material (books, ideas, discussions) in an effective way? Did the student use one or more recommended resources to develop the project?
structure - Is the video well organized? Does it "flow" or is it a mere assemblage of random images and sounds? Does it effectively communicate a strong idea, a recognizable theme, a memorable message? Do the different parts that comprise the video concur to build something bigger or are they disconnected and unrelated from each other?
presentation - Is the video well edited or at least consistent with the chosen genre's conventions? Is the author's visual or narrative presentation effective, cohesive, and cogent?
originality - Is the approach innovative? Does the video merely recycle existing content or does it feature content specifically created for the project?
creativity - Did the student demonstrate a level of ingenuity in depicting the green washing campaign/message? Does it show that the student has fully grasped the key idea behind this practice?
impact - Does the video leave a strong impression on the viewer? Is it memorable or forgettable?
The optional multimedia project will receive a score ranging from 0-3 points, which will be added to the written test result (only if 18 or above), where 0 = the project misses the point or the production values are below acceptable and 3 = the project fulfills all requirements and demonstrates the student's ability to use audiovisual storytelling to express complex ideas.
All student's projects will be shared on the Moodle platform.
Final scores will be communicated to each student on January 10 2023 via email.
Check the course page of IULM's moodle platform for plenty of resources and extras